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[Newsmaker] Moon urges all-out efforts on urea shortages

President Moon Jae-in at a Cabinet meeting. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in at a Cabinet meeting. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in on Monday instructed his aides to use diplomacy and public reserves to stave off a urea shortage in the private sector, as the country runs low on diesel exhaust fluid after China tightened exports to avert its own power crisis.

Urea solutions are used in diesel vehicles to reduce emissions, and about 97 percent of Korea’s imports came from China during the first nine months of the year, according to the Trade Ministry. Seoul has already asked Beijing to ease its export ban.

“And public reserves should be able to provide a way to help ease the shortage,” Moon’s spokesperson quoted him as saying.

Earlier in the day, the Ministry of National Defense said it was discussing releasing its urea reserve.

“We haven’t been asked to provide ours, yet. But when the time comes, we will think about using the stockpile in a way that does not sacrifice our defense readiness,” ministry spokesperson Boo Seung-chan said.

Boo, who stressed that the military would “lend” its share, declined to disclose the total volume the military is holding for security reasons. The military was not planning to flying a transport plane, other than one set for Australia this week to haul back 20 tons of urea, he added.

But the amount, even combined with the 200 tons the military could offer, falls far short of the 20,000 tons needed for the private sector each month. Diversifying supply could take months, according to a Seoul official.

Hong Jeong-kee, vice minister of the Environment Ministry, said the ministry is running a test to divert urea used to generate industrial energy, adding that the ministry will discuss specifics of the plan this weekend at the earliest, when the results come out.

But the vice minister said he will not ease rules on emissions just to secure enough urea for diesel vehicles. Currently, diesel cares make up 40 percent of all registered vehicles in Korea, and they are required to use urea to cut their emissions.

Meanwhile, the government launched a task force to monitor hoarding involving urea solutions. Since mid-October when China’s ban came into effect, urea has been sold at steep markups.

The task force will closely look at about 10,000 firms, such as urea producers, retailers, distributors and gas stations nationwide, to prevent rigging the market. Penalties include up to three years in prison or a fine of 100 million won ($85,000).

Korea, outcompeted by cheaper Chinese urea, halted local production in 2011.

By Choi Si-young (